As much as they wanted to tamp down the wildfire of hype surrounding their game, Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Georgia's Kirby Smart have failed. Saturday's game, the history that surrounds it and the implications it can have on the 2021 college football season are that big. Better, though, to fail in crafting a narrative surrounding the hyper-ventilated run-up to No. 3 Clemson vs. No. 5 Georgia than losing the actual game.
In this case, history tells us Saturday's loser in Charlotte will have a massive problem achieving its season-long goal, which is nothing less than achieving one of four spots in the College Football Playoff.
Yup, the loser is in trouble. Perhaps big trouble.
The last team to gain at least a share of a national championship despite losing its opener was Miami in 1983. It's happened only four times in wire-service poll history (since 1936).
No team has played in a BCS Championship Game or made the CFP after losing its opener since the former began in 1998. That's understandable because the sport's opening week doesn't often hand us such compelling openers. Saturday marks only the fifth time in that span that a pair of top-five teams have kicked off a season against one another.
In the last two such top-five meetings, the games' winners have advanced to at least play for the national championship: No. 1 Alabama beat No. 3 Florida State (24-7) in 2017, and No. 4 LSU beat No. 3 Oregon (40-27) in 2011.
So, yeah, it would be wise to win this game. Clemson is currently favored by three points, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
"When it's all said and done, I don't think you can judge either team based on one game," Swinney said this week. "A lot can happen in one game, especially in an opener. Nobody's going to be declared national champion if you win this game."
True, but history tells us the loser is unlikely to be part of any national title hunt.
If you really want some stark reality, Clemson can "afford" a loss more than Georgia. It plays in the in the always-winnable ACC. Well, at least for the Tigers. Clemson has used the conference and its six straight league titles as a springboard to six consecutive CFP appearances and two national championships since 2015.
Lose this one, and the Bulldogs are basically running out of championship runway. To defy history, they would have run the table in the ultra-competitive SEC. Auburn and Florida are on the schedule down the road.
There has yet to be a two-loss program make the four-team field in the seven-year history of the CFP. In fact, only a pair of two-loss teams in history have ever won national championships in the wire service era, one in the last 61 years.
That was LSU in 2007. That year, everything had to go right for the Tigers, who lost their regular-season finale to Arkansas giving up 50 points in a three-overtime defeat at home. Previously, Minnesota won it all in 1960 despite losing two of their last three games.
Understandably, Smart neither worries nor cares.
"I'll never forget when they threw away the [New England] Patriots after one game and said the dynasty was over they were terrible," Georgia's coach said. "And the next couple of weeks, they go on and have a great season and win the Super Bowl."
What Smart failed to mention is that the Patriots have lost their opener only six times under Bill Belichick, not since 2017. Sure, three times New England won Super Bowls after losing its first game of the respective season, so there's hope. But the NFL is a different universe.
The college schedule is more compact and frankly more compelling. In 1998, Florida State made it to the first BCS title game despite a loss to NC State. In 2014, Ohio State lost at home to Virginia Tech and rebounded to win it all. Both of the losses came in Week 2 of their schedules. That's the closest season-opening comparison to the implications of Saturday in Charlotte.
This is a rivalry accomplished with a car ride. The two campuses are about 80 miles apart. Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium -- 200 miles from Athens, Georgia -- is meant to serve as a neutral site, but it figures to be populated by a large portion of Clemson fans as the Tigers' stadium is 140 miles away.
"Every game is a measuring stick, right?" Smart said. "... No different in this game."
Get used to more of these uber nonconference games. The Big Ten-ACC-Pac-12 alliance has teased us with a new generation of nonconference scheduling. Georgia and Florida have gone out of their way to schedule other Power Five opponents and enhance their future schedule strengths in the CFP era.
"I want strength of schedule to play in my favor," Smart said.
This one is in rare air. This one is a pistol duel at 20 paces. This is Vince Dooley vs. Danny Ford. This is renewal of a rivalry while staring over a cliff. Georgia and Clemson both bought out of lesser nonconference games to play each other Saturday. The teams haven't met since 2014.
Only one may come out "alive" in the national championship race.
Georgia fans are sick of being serenaded with chants of "1980", the year of the program's last national championship. Under Smart, Alabama was a given as on obstacle to overcome. But during his time at Athens, Smart has witnessed the rise of Clemson and Ohio State above everyone else as well.
In his second season, Smart got close in that crushing overtime loss to Bama in the 2018 CFP National Championship. Since then, Georgia has been part of that "everyone else." It hurts but it's true in a sport that has increasingly lost its grip on parity.
It's possible the college football game of the year might be played before Labor Day.
"It will be a national measuring stick for everybody to say, 'Georgia's either here or Georgia's gone.' I get that. I understand that," Smart said. "That's not going to change how we prepare for this game. That's not going to change how we prepare for the next game. It's life. It's what the world is made out of."
There are plenty of similarities between the Dawgs and Tigers. Both teams' secondaries have been remade. Both have great defensive fronts. With a bunch of receivers hurt ,Georgia may have to do what it does best anyway: run it with a big, physical offensive line.
Meanwhile, Clemson has to find a way to run it. The Tigers finished 11th in the ACC last year in rushing. Swinney doesn't have to be reminded. He also knows what works. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott has been an expert at developing multi-talented backs like Travis Etienne to find hidden yards. The next one might be five-star tailback Will Shipley, about whom Swinney can't stop raving.
Neither quarterback has completed a full season for vastly different reasons. Clemson sophomore D.J. Uiagalelei is taking over for Trevor Lawrence, a generational talent. Georgia junior JT Daniels is trying to take over leadership of the Dawgs. The USC transfer hopes to keep the momentum going from 2020 when he returned from a knee injury to throw for 1,200 yards in the final four games.
In this duel -- heavy with longing, anticipation and hype -- the participants can't wait. It's ready, aim, fire away.
"Our fans crave these kind of games," Smart said. "We, as coaches, crave these kinds of games. You find out a lot more about yourselves. For you guys it's everything. It's over if you don't win. You win it all if you do win. … But for us, it's an opportunity to grow. It's going to make us better in our SEC schedule regardless. We're going to be a better team."